Newcastle United’s plans to disrupt the top six will be a welcome addition to the Premier League – even if such lofty hopes leave questions over Eddie Howe’s long-term future.
The multi-million-pound takeover of the club has drawn inevitable comparisons with Manchester City who since being bought by the Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008 have gone on to win countless major honors. Their dominance on the top of the table, alongside Liverpool, is exactly why Newcastle’s hopes of crashing the party – alongside the likes of West Ham – should be applauded, according to legendary broadcaster Jon Champion.
Champion, who has covered the Premier League for more than two decades, spoke to Chronicle Live for a special long read on the greatest commentary moments of Newcastle United’s recent history. He also shared his view on modern-day Newcastle.
“I do think we need it,” Champion told Chronicle Live. “You know, Newcastle played that role, didn’t they? Everton, for a while, were knocking on the door and almost got into the Champions League one year when David Moyes was there.
“I was really pleased to see West Ham giving it a good go. Leicester, I just think was a freak of nature. I mean, it was extraordinary. And even two months before the end of the season, I was looking at this and thinking there’s no way that they’re going to do this. And then I happened to be commentating on the Leicester-Liverpool game when [Jamie] Vardy scored that magnificent volley on the run. That was the first time when I thought this could actually happen.
“And I am as you’ve probably gathered from this conversation in the midst of a sport that is primarily a business these days, I’m a real romantic and I love the storylines. I love the peaks and troughs. I love the moments of emotion. I love Bobby Robson [vs Leeds in 2001]. I like Craig Bellamy [vs Feyenoord in 2002]so I love the underdog to have a real shot at something.
“I just think it benefits the league as a whole because otherwise, it gets dull. I don’t want to see, despite the wonderful teams they are, I don’t want to see Manchester City and Liverpool only vying for the league season after season after season just like 15 years ago, I didn’t want to see Manchester United and Arsenal being the only contenders for the league season after season after season.
“So anyone else who tries to join the top table, I think is a very welcome visitor and hopefully, a guest who is going to stay for a long time rather than just one or two seasons.”
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But with such ambition – on the day of the takeover in October 2021, Amanda Staveley talked about winning the Premier League within 10 years – comes pressure on the manager. Howe did a remarkable job to drag Newcastle out of the relegation zone but as there was with City, there are some who expect Howe to be a stepping stone before a more established head coach.
Staveley however has said on the record that she hopes Howe would have a similar spell as Sir Alex Ferguson did at Manchester United, but it is the comparison to the blue-side of Man City that provokes a look back at their managerial journey to Pep Guardiola .
“I think Eddie has done really well. I mean, as you’ll have gathered, he’s a pretty understated guy,” Champion added. “I’ve dealt with him quite a bit at Bournemouth, and even at Burnley when he had that one year there and I really like him because he’s not going to shout from the rooftops, but he’s going to quietly get on with the job.
“He took a long time out of the game and he could have gone back in and gone to Celtic but he was biding his time and a really good opportunity has come up. What interests me with Eddie is whether he is, if you equate it to Manchester City, you know, new ownership, a lot of money coming into a proud club that needed to be rebuilt from the bottom up, is he going to be the Mark Hughes, the guy who has first dibs who takes them so far, and then gets replaced? Or is it going to be Roberto Mancini, the guy who wins the title for the first time? I’ll be fascinated to see how that plays out.
“Indeed the degree of financial support is there for him and they’ve spent quite a bit of money but it’s not just been open a checkbook and spend, spend, spend, spend spend, it’s been considered recruitment so far, which is very much his style. Dan Ashworth is a big part of that now as well.”
The demand for tickets for the new season has increased to unprecedented levels with more than 40,000 supporters queuing online to get their hands on an additional 1,000 season tickets. The demand was similar for membership packs, while the two home pre-season friendlies against Atalanta and Athletic Bilbao are on course to be sold out.
It’s a stark contrast to the final years under the previous owner Mike Ashley when the club decided to give out 10,000 free season tickets to combat falling attendances. For Champion, who is now based in the USA with ESPN but covers the Premier League in the UK with Amazon Prime, the change in feeling around the club has been very noticeable.
Speaking about his last visit to Tyneside – the 1-1 draw with Man United back in December 2021, Champion noted the change in atmosphere.
“Without getting into the sort of the rights and wrongs of where the ownership comes, it’s just lovely to see a club that’s being cared for again because so many times you would go in the Ashley era, and it was a bit like visiting the Mary Celeste, you know, that ship cast out at sea where all the crew has disappeared and the lights are on but nobody’s home.
“Nobody seemed to be a steward of the club. I would talk to people that I’ve known there for years – club employees behind the scenes and some of the team staff and it was all so downbeat and they couldn’t see a way out of it. So to see now, a club that’s actually got a path towards a potentially glorious future is uplifting. I feel that a great club had been resuscitated.
“[When I last visited] That’s how I put it – that a patient that I worried about because his condition was getting worse and worse, suddenly had life breathed back into him and was on the road to recovery. There were echoes as I saw it, I mean it’s a different generation of fans now and many of them weren’t even alive when Keegan’s cavaliers were doing what they were doing and then the wonderful Bobby Robson team that followed, but that spirit is still butchered
“Those who were there in the Keegan years have obviously told the next generation about what it was like, what this club potentially can be, just what a thrilling ride they can provide and it will never be dull. So it was a bit like a throwback.
“The last time I’ve been to St. James’ Park with as much animation as that was a couple of occasions – I remember Alan Pardew’s first game, beating Liverpool and Andy Carroll scored from a distance. I remember commenting on that and that scene because at the time the full effect of the Ashley years hadn’t been felt. I think there was obviously skepticism about the managerial appointment, but the crowd was still capable of rousing itself and echoing those days of yesteryear.
“But then there was this long fallow period. Before that it was probably Alan Shearer’s testimonial with the swirling scarves, albeit on a very different occasion. I think I would jump from there all the way through to my last visit at the end of December . Newcastle were clearly on the way back.”
The atmosphere at St James’ Park since the takeover and the appointment of Howe has been unrivaled. Champion, whose mother was from Blyth and grandmother from Gateshead, has been pleased to see the change in the mood of the fans. But what can Newcastle expect in the short-term? Champion is sure that alongside the fans, the owners will be realistic about their aims.
“Past experiences at other clubs shows us this is not about winning the league next year,” Champion added, “this is about building something sustainable, that maybe in four or five seasons is capable of being in contention for honors and is knocking on the door of the Champions League as well.”
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